Lesbians Choosing Known Donors Revisited

At the risk of belaboring my point, I wanted to return to this topic, the subject of a post a few days ago.  It’s engendered a lively discussion (which is always gratifying) and I wanted to bring a couple of points back up to the top of the column, as it were. 

I encourage you to read the original post so you have an idea of what the case at hand is.   You can also read the news account here

First I wanted to reiterate my original point, because I think only one of the commenters responded to it.   Stories like the one here circulate within the lesbian community.   For lesbians who are considering parenthood and deciding between a known and an unknown donor, they are cautionary tales.   They add weight to the unknown donor side of the scales.   (I don’t think any of these statements are particularly controversial,  but if you think they are, by all means let me know.)

What that means is that stories like these make it somewhat more likely that lesbians will choose unknown donors.     

Now while it’s possible to be indifferent to this result, I know that a number of readers here are anything but indifferent.   And to the extent I’ve become sensitized to the issues around use of unidentifiable donors, I think these are concerns worth thinking about.

What could you do if you wanted to remove or at least blunt the pressure to choose an unidentifiable donor?   Note that the law in California is already fairly supportive of the lesbian parents–the donor is not a legal father.    So the problem isn’t (just) the law.   It’s the cultural assumption that the donor is really a parent and so whenever he wants to come in and pick up that mantle he can push the lesbian mother (who isn’t really a parent) out of the picture.  

Now why is the donor seen as really a parent while the lesbian mother is not?   Two reasons, I think, though ultimately I believe they are related.  First, he’s genetically related and, as you can see in comments on this blog, many people will insist that this makes him a father no matter what role he does (or does not) play in the child’s life.   Second, because he is male, and since the children already have a mother, what they need is not another mother but rather a father.      

This leads me to say that if you want to stop discouraging lesbians from choosing unidentifiable donors, you actually need to play down the “biology is the root of parenthood” point.  If we do that, then people can choose a known and involved donor and not worry that whenever he chooses to, he can insist on parenthood. 

I think saramaimon is the only commenter who responded to this concern on the first post.   I hope it is fair to say that she took a longer view–that while in the short run insisting on the primacy of biology might have the result I describe, in the longer run it might be beneficial.  (I hope that is a fair summary–and I apologize if it is not.  Feel free to correct me.)   

But it seems unlikely to me that, in the long run, most lesbians are going to decide they’d really prefer to parent with a male co-parent.   They might want a man to be involved in a non-parental way–but this is exactly what the biology argument makes difficult–if the man is there, he’s the parent.  

One last note–about the role of sex/gender in this case.  I do think it matters. 

Imagine this hypo.  A and B are a heterosexual couple.   B is male, but sterile.  So A and B use C, a friend, as a donor, in order for A to become pregnant.   A child is born and A and B act as parents.   At some point, A and B separate.   A ends up in a relationship with C.   Does C automatically get to displace B and become the father of the child because, after all, he’s genetically related?  

This is the same story as the real one, of course, except I’ve made B male instead of female.  I think the story has a different feel and that many people would respond to it differently.  Just something to think about.   I’ve gone on long enough today.


27 responses to “Lesbians Choosing Known Donors Revisited

  1. Julie, the substitution story of the heterosexual couple has actually happened and you talked about it on Nov 21. In that case reported by the NY Times the social father was extremely angry that he was not permitted to give up parenthood and that he had to pay child support to an intact biological family.

    • I thought about linking to that, but it’s actually a bit different. The original couple there didn’t mean to be using a donor–the wife was unfaithful to her husband. And the husband was deceived as to his relationship to the child. That seems to me to add several other layers to his (and our) reactions. But maybe it really is essentially the same.

  2. I was perusing your friend’s blog and I noticed that some states do have a time criteria. One state had a six month “holding out” minimum, another had two years. While I’m no expert on what length of time is appropriate (both seem quite minimal to me) it seems reasonable to apply legal parenthood to a relationship that has stood the test of time than to one that hasn’t.

    The interesting factor was that one of the states (Texas?) applied this to other relatives in the child’s life such as grandparents, and step parents giving them certain right, not just the mother’s partner. I found this very consistent as it bases the law not on the relationship to the kid’s mom but on the relationship to the kid itsef.

    (Whether 3 is a crowd when it comes to parenthood is another question)

    • As usual, there is a lot of variation state to state. Some states also think in terms of a significant or substantial period of time given the age of a child. Thus, 23 months would be a substantial period of time for a 23 month old child–it’s the child’s whole life. It might not be a substantial period of time for a 14 year old. Although it does inject uncertainty, I think a flexible standard like this probably is a better solution than a flat two years (which would shut out the 23 month person.) (I’m not saying this solves all problems, by the way. Just that on this point, I prefer this approach.)

  3. But back to your original question on how to encourage lesbians to choose a known donor.

    (By this I assume you mean a friend or acquaintance rather than an identity release donor from a sperm bank, who is anonymous until age 18)

    First we need to examine whether that truly is the desired outcome.

    Not having any first hand experience, I really can’t say that knowing who your father is, even seeing him time to time, but not having a relationship with him is such an improvement over a sperm bank donor. It’s like experiencing a continuously repeating rejection.

    It is probably still better than never finding out who he is at all, but an identity release donor from a sperm bank might even turn out to be a better choice.

    (As I said, I don’t know from personal experience, but most of the sad bitter accounts of donor conceived person’s that I’ve read come from totally anonymous situations. )

    I also believe it is unrealistic to suppose that the child will not regard the known donor as his father, though the adults in the picture might wish so… .

    • There’s a broad range of practices out there–in terms of what folks actually do, I mean. I don’t think kids (necessarily) experience any form of rejection with a known donor who is not seen as a father. To the contrary, their are donors who embrace the role and welcome the contact with the child, but don’t relate to themselves or portray themselves as a parent. Neither do all children regard the donor as a parent. It varies.

      I think some people do prefer this to identity release. Personally, I make no judgment on that. I’m fairly sure it depends on how well the whole situation is managed.

      And perhaps that is a larger point: there is an extraordinary diversity of arrangments out there. Identical arrangments work out differently for different people, depending the the specifics of who is involved and how, I would suppose.

      • OK but in that case, if there is no clear better way, there is no need to campaign for lesbians to choose known donors instead of identity release donors.

        • Sorry to keep hogging the comment board but I just find this idea so disturbing. You want to expand the choices for lesbian partners and increase the status of the mother’s partner … how? by disenfranching the status of the father himself. There is something so gender biased in that. On the one hand the mother’s status is so sacred that not only she but anyone associated with her gets parental rights, on the other hand the father doesn’t even get to be called father.

          Why aren’t you as concerned about gay men who want to be parents but who’se rights won’t be protected by the law?

          (i write gay, because a straight guy who wants kids will tend to go about it the old fashion way, but it applies to the straight guy too)

          It was one thing with the one night stand guy who was never heard from again. But now you suggest applying it to a guy who IS part of the kids life, albeit in a peripheral way (because the mother wanter her partner to play the central parental role-here we go again the inviolability of mothers hand in hand w the expendability of fathers).

          I realize now what the difference is between the one night stand guy and the sperm donor- the difference is the interests of the child’s MOTHER. In the first case, she’d like his involvement (or at least his money), in the second case she doesn’t. The law by and large defines fatherhood according to what MOTHERs want. And there’s something wrong with that.

          I can’t believe I’m saying these words. I was always a feminist. But at least on this one issue it appears to me that the pendulum has swung too far to the other side.

          • I guess I do not see this as a gender discrimination problem. I would treat a man who participated in the joint enterprise of bringing a child into the world the same as I’d treat a woman. And generally I’d treat egg donors the same as sperm donors. I don’t think a woman gets to be a mother just because she’s an egg donor.

            I do think pregnancy is something that needs to be taking into account. The experience of being pregnant is a good deal more involving than that of donating sperm. But this is not to say that I’d treat a person who partnered the pregnant woman differently because he was male rather than female.

            I realize that this ends up meaning that gay men wishing to become parents are in a different position than lesbians. Of course both should be equally free to adopt, but if they want to go the biological route, I think I just have to say there are some ineradicable differences.

  4. if you’re referring to identity release donors-

    I don’t remember the source but I’ve read more than once that Lesbians are the most likely of clients to seek identity release donors. The lesbian owned- and operated sperm bank Pacific Reproductive services (pacrepro.com) actually adverstises its service that way- “we have the largest selection of willing to be known donors!” so perhaps there really is no pressing need to encourage lesbians to use identity release donors….

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if this is so (and I will follow up.) But I think there’s a difference between identity release (which happens at the child’s election when the child is 18, I think) and having a known donor who’s around during the child’s youth. It’s the latter option that would become less attractive, I think.

  5. As someone who has conducted extensive interviews with lesbian mothers, I can say that many wanted to have a known donor but were too scared because the law didn’t protect them. I’d say over half of the 50-odd families interviewed took that view. They had heard of or knew about conflicts like the case you site, Julie, and weren’t willing to take the risk. So I think that the failure of the law to protect two mum families, and nopn-bio Mums in particular, actually DRIVES lesbian couples/singles who would have otherwise used a known donor to conceive with anonymous donors.

  6. Julie, I’m beginning to suspect that your primary agenda is to destroy the social/legal protection of the nuclear family by undermining the significance of genetic links, undermining the role and value of a father and undermining the feelings of the donor conceived who say that knowing and having contact with a genetic father is very important to them. It seems that Julie looks at men as primarily providers of genetic material but does not really regard them as parents unless they take on a more feminine role of being a primary care giver. However, bizarrely enough you consider a lesbian partner as more a parent because amongst other things she helps choose a donor from a catalog. To me there’s something a little screwy about saying that choosing which third party should be the gmete source is more important than being the gamete source itself.

    • I am not sure if I really need to address these concerns here, as I think they are a bit of a distortion of what I’ve been writing all this time. It isn’t simply helping choose out of a catelog that might entitled one to recognition as a parent. It’s forging a real and tangible relationship with the child.
      And ultimately, that’s what I want to value–the reality of a child’s world. Perhaps that does undermine the nuclear family.

      I suppose to, I think what we expect of people in part determines what they deliver. Certainly in teaching, it’s better to have high expectations of students. I think we ought to expect more from men and women who wish to be parents than simply offering their genetic material.

      • “I think we ought to expect more from men and women who wish to be parents than simply offering their genetic material.”

        Yet in the same breath, you absolve them completely of all rights and responsibilities. If you truly expect more, wouldn’t you applaud men such as Ray and Wallace instread of advocating for the law to shut them out?

        “It’s forging a real and tangible relationship with the child.”

        Not in quite a number of the cases that you brought up. In one of them the mother’s ex-partner had sued before the child was born, and in another the child was only five months old.

        In another case, (Ray in Florida- which was posted by a commenter), the biological father had bonded in the child (who called him dada) when the mother and her partner decided to move to California, and the court declared he had no rights vis a vis the lesbian couple- a ruling that you appear to advocate in your recent posts.

  7. In Ontario, Canada, a child can have three legal parents. See this link

  8. Julie, thanks for posting thoughtfully about these issues and continuing to respond kindly to sometimes heated or hostile comments.

    I’m a nonbio lesbian mom. Our donor was anonymous, non-identity-release. But we originally tried to use my brother as a donor — that didn’t work out for geographical and possibly biological reasons. So, I’m theoretically open to both paths.

    But I think even beyond the scanty, uneven legal protections available for same-sex and nonbiological parents, the use of known donors is daunting because it makes the interpersonal situation much more complicated.

    We felt comfortable working with my brother because we deeply feel that neither he nor his wife would ever want him to be a social father to our kids, nor want to hide the fact that he was their genetic father.

    Bringing in a known donor, even in a non-parental role, is basically asking an additional person to enter into a lifelong commitment with you, where all parties promise to abide by the original parenting agreement. If the chances are already high of a couple developing irreconcilable differences, they must be even higher for a triad with 3 different dyadic relationships to consider.

  9. Sandy, you are right about the importance of the genetic link. When a stepparent family splits up, it is rare that the stepparent keep in contact with the child afterwards. This is not due to legal obstacles, but because people apparently view biological parenthood as the only kind of parenthood which involves a permanent responsibility. Parenthood which is established through a relationship with a biological parent almost always ends when the relationship ends.

    It is not known to which extent this also applies to same-sex couples. Statistics Canada which also does statistics on same-sex couples (because same-sex marriage is legal in Canada), may eventually find out.

  10. Theresa – the donor-conceived have feelings too have a look at this –


  11. A very good issue for discussion. As I mentioned on my Facebook page when I first read about this lawsuit on January 17th, this is a situation that can be avoided. If you don’t mind, I will repeat part of what I wrote: “… When I have lesbian partners come to me for IVF, I always counsel them to consider using “splitting” the responsibility, that is, one partner donates her eggs to be fertilized while the other partner carries the fertilized embryo(s), that way both partners have a “stake” in the pregnancy. I also advise them not to use a known sperm donor.”

  12. Nelly, I would not be surprised to discover that homosexual step parents, as well as straight but infertile persons would display a stronger connection to their partner’s child than other step parents, the reason being is that they do not expect to have biological children of their own.

    But, it takes two to have a relationships. Will a child who has a connection with both a father and mother, be motivated to maintain a relationship with a non-related adult who is also in an estranged state with their parents? The odds don’t seem too high to me.

    But as you say, there isn’t alot of research done on the subject, so it seems to me that lawmakers are pretty much legislating blind.

  13. One rule for the doctor another for the ivf-sufferers, because of false birth certificates. This doctor advises enshrining the hazards of inaccurate mediacal records amd incest in law.

    The donor-conceived in the link I posted (two messages up) call thier birth certificates fraudulent. We are not legislating blind; the DI-community are making thier position perfectly clear.

    • I know you’ve gone on about birth cerfiticates at lenght, but it really does seem to me that an “honest” birth certificate (to the extent I can use that term) would only list the name of the woman who gave birth. It is, after all, usually more formally called a certificate of live birth. If you demand honest reporting it should report when and where the birth occured and who gave birth to the child. It might not say anything at all about who the legal parents of the child were. Most strikingly, in a case where a woman gave birth using a donor egg, it seems to me that honesty would require listing the woman who gave birth rather than the woman who gave the egg, even if the ultimate intent is that the woman who gave the egg is to be a parent (this would be surrogacy.)

  14. inaccutate birth certificates = the hazard of incest and genetically inherited diseases….one day you’ll start doing the legal bit for the DI-community and help them in thier misery.

  15. Julie’s point about birth certificates is good. Since its purpose is to document a birth, and the state does not actually verify the biological father’s identity, maybe it should just state the birth (gestational) mother’s name and resolve legal issues with other documents.

    Angela, I know the (small, but non-zero) risk of marrying one’s half-sibling is an issue with anonymous donors, and that’s why I support 1) telling kids the truth about their genetic ancestry; 2) limiting the number of children conceived per donor; and 3) voluntary donor sibling registries.

  16. genetically inherited diseases need to have the 2 biological parents for treatments and cures and check-ups – and sometimes extended family members too.

  17. Angela, can you give an example of when both biological parents would be needed for “treatments and cures and check-ups”?

    To my mind, access to the biological parents is only helpful in certain rare circumstances. Namely, if the biological father later discovers he has or carries a genetic disease that was not screened for by the sperm bank, *and* if early screening and treatment are helpful for that disease, it would be better for his biological child to know about it, just in case the child inherited the disease mutation.

    As a biologist I would say that few diseases would fall into in this category at the moment — though of course more could be discovered in the lifetime of our children. Donors should be encouraged to update their info. through the sibling registry or through the sperm bank.

    My partner and I were aware of this rare possibility, but we felt that the love we could give a child would outweigh the small risk.

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